Welcome back to Tabletop Tastes: My favorite flavors in board games! This is a series where we spend each episode diving deep into an essential element of game design. For hobbyist gamers, this series will help you to explore your own tastes in the hobby and perhaps discover your next favorite game that fits those tastes. For game designers, this series will offer you more tools to add to your utility belt and metrics to measure your projects by. It has been many months since we wrapped up the first part of this series, and you can catch up on those episodes by going here. And now, let’s jump into episode 8: Fresh Downtime!
It’s funny how just a little bit of time can turn fresh bread to stale, ripe berries into rotten, and a good egg salad to bad. We’ve all tried to eat something that has lost its freshness, and the difference is usually too strong to ignore.
Likewise, a little too much downtime between your turns in a board game, or worse yet, useless downtime between turns, can make a game quickly feel stale.
Dominion is typically a game with minimal downtime… until it isn’t. Add in enough players or increasingly combotastic decks and suddenly you might be waiting forever for others to draw and play their entire deck every time it is their turn. This was my experience last time I played Dominion, and it made a new deck builder, Fort, all the more refreshing when I got the chance to try it.
I’ve recently talked about how Dominion hasn’t aged well as more and more deck builders hit the market. One of my least favorite parts about it is how I can play an entire game and never need to pay attention to anyone else’s turns. It usually doesn’t matter to me what other players are doing on their turns, so when it’s a long wait between my own turns, the fun starts to get a little stale.
Fort solves this problem by giving players the opportunity to follow their opponents’ actions. You must constantly decide whether to use a card from your hand to ride the coattails of other players or save it for your own turn. This gives me even more to consider as I end my turn and draw my next hand, as I’m thinking about plan A and plan B options depending on what carrots my opponents dangle.
Potion Explosion reveals a similar downtime problem to Dominion, where all time between your turns is woefully meaningless and painfully slow. Usually the best ingredient to pick is claimed by the current player, so planning out your choice beforehand is pointless. Every turn starts with a brand new marble-rack state where the active player must analyze the new options while everyone else waits and stares into the void.
Jaipur is also a set collection drafting game with much less exciting components than potion tiles and sliding marbles on a rack. Yet I’m always laser-focused on those spice points and fabric tiles and camel cards when my opponent is deciding what to take or play. It helps that the turns in this 2-player game are so snappy. But more than that, every turn that my opponent takes feels like they are reaching into my box of prized treasures and stealing them right out from under my nose. Jaipur strikes a tense balance between risks and incentives, strategies and tactics, highs and lows, and it all hinges on what I choose to leave out for my opponent based on what I think they will do. This is why Potion Explosion was booted from my collection while Jaipur holds a space within my shrine of stellar card games.
The worst kind of downtime is when it has minimal payoff. I can play a game of Root or Pax Pamir where the downtime is fairly high, yet I treasure that time to be able to survey the game state and search for my best path forward. I also respect the time my opponents take to make a move when the stakes are high and poor decisions can be ultra punishing. But when a light, breezy game like Santa Monica waltzes onto my table and eats up seemingly just as much downtime, I begin to get impatient.
In this cozy beach crafting game, the analysis-to-payoff ratio is far too high for me to excuse its sluggish pace. Once again, you have a game where I couldn’t care less about what is going on with my opponents’ play areas, and the turns aren’t fast or remarkable enough to disguise the void of downtime.
I’ve found that the best way to combat downtime in a low interaction, low complexity game is either zippy turns or simultaneous play. Games like 7 Wonders and Sushi Go have stayed popular for so long partially because everyone takes their turns at the same time. Pick a card, play it, pass your hand, repeat! Meanwhile, Reiner Knizia’s classic designs have staying power because the turns are quick and simple but they pack a punch. It’s a beautiful tempo for a game when you just want to get to the fun.
The best board games in the industry find ways to freshen or minimize their downtime. The most obvious ways to accomplish this include simultaneous play or zippy turns. Other designs, like the above mentioned Pax Pamir and Root, disguise their downtime by making the game captivating throughout or giving players plenty to think about in-between their turns.
Another way to freshen downtime is by embracing it! This can happen when other players’ turns are fun to spectate or strategically useful. Who doesn’t enjoy watching an opponent take on an interesting dexterity challenge? Likewise, witnessing a competitor’s turn as they give away juicy information in a deduction game can be highly rewarding.
Ultimately, nobody prefers to eat stale bread, rotten berries, and bad egg salads. Similarly, gamers don’t want play games with stale, sluggish downtimes. But I suppose that exceptions can be made if the design brings balance to the universe with a clean setup and teardown.
Tune in next time for Tabletop Tastes #9: Clean Setup/Teardown
More great games with fresh downtime:
Simultaneous Play: Quacks of Quedlinburg, Taverns of Tiefenthal, Chinatown, Magic Maze, Captain Sonar, KLASK, Sidereal Confluence, Don’t Get Got, My City, Welcome To, Railroad Ink, Super Skill Pinball, QE, Race for the Galaxy, Just One, On Tour
Fun to Spectate: Crokinole, Men at Work, Junk Art, Skull
Useful Opponent Turns: Cryptid, Treasure Island, Downforce, Loot of Lima, That’s Pretty Clever, Bristol 1350, Spyfall, Scape Goat
Zippy Turns: Blue Lagoon, Azul, Blitzkrieg!, Bus, Ethnos, Irish Gauge, The Quest for El Dorado, Love Letter, Tournament at Avalon
Captivating Play: Camel Up, For Sale, Modern Art, Wavelength, Condottiere, The Crew, The Mind, The Estates, A Fake Artist Goes to New York, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, High Society, Isle of Skye, The King’s Dilemma, Mysterium, Ra
Thinky Downtime: Age of Steam, Brass Birmingham, Great Western Trail, Pipeline, Tigris & Euphrates, The King is Dead, Samurai, Inis, A Feast for Odin
What are your favorite games with a fresh downtime?
Article written by Nick Murray. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!